Reporting Sara Pelissero
The Twin Cities are blessed when it comes to talent in the kitchen. The culinary minds at the helm of our favorite restaurants receive critical acclaim and top honors from food enthusiasts and reviewers, alike. But who are the people behind the chef’s coat? Our Chef’s Profile aims to find out.
When Sameh Wadi told his father he wanted to go to culinary school, his response wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement.
“It was a shock. He had no idea. I mean, no idea,” he said. “My father said, ‘Oh sh–, you’re going to be flipping burgers for the rest of your life.’ That was his initial reaction.”
Strangely enough, it was his father who unknowingly planted the seed that would later blossom into a full grown passion for food and cooking.
Unlike traditional Palestinian families, Wadi’s father was the king of the kitchen. In fact, he was the one who taught his mother how to cook when they were first married.
“My mom didn’t know how to cook until she met my father,” he said. “My father was a better cook than her. My mom would kill me if she heard me talking about this but it’s the truth.”
Beyond dishing up inventive dinners and incredible flavors, Wadi’s father also served in the Air Force, was an artist and a part-time Middle Eastern calligrapher. In the early 80s, he and Wadi’s mother started writing and researching a cookbook intended to be used as an encyclopedia of Palestinian cuisine.
“We were sitting around in this house where we discussed food and discussed dishes and the origins of these dishes, a lot,” he said. “Recipes were sent to us from all over the Mediterranean to be included in this book.”
The cookbook was never published. Wadi and his family were forced to flee Kuwait when the Gulf War began. The family relocated to Jordan before eventually moving to the United States.
Still, the book’s influence had left its impression – even if young Wadi didn’t realize it at the time.
Blame it on his blissful ignorance but the now 29-year-old chef said he never considered his enjoyment in the kitchen to be a viable full-time career.
“I really never understood that I had a passion for food. I was always in the kitchen. I wanted to know what was going on, what spices were being used. But it never occurred to me that this was really a career path. Never,” he said. “It was just something that you do because you’re interested in it. And I wasn’t fat enough to be a chef because in my mind, you had to be fat to be a chef so clearly, I couldn’t be a chef.”
Instead, he wanted to study art – another passion and hobby of his multi-talented father.
It wasn’t until he had a chat with a true artist – one who shared his real-life experiences – that Wadi had a change of heart.
“One of (my father’s) closest friends lived in Spain and I remember having a conversation with him where he said, ‘Come on by, if you want to be an artist, you can come stay with us. It’s me and 10 of my friends that live together.’ And I thought, ‘Oh my God, they live with 10 of their friends? How amazing is that? They probably live in a castle. They probably have maids.’ And he said, ‘No, it’s 10 guys and we live in a one-bedroom.’ And I’m like, OK, maybe I don’t want to pursue it that much.”
When Wadi moved to Minnesota in 1997, he started working at a grocery store called Best Food Market owned by his family. His brother was an electrical engineer and there was plenty of pressure to follow in his footsteps – or to become a doctor or a lawyer, like many of his relatives. None of those options seemed right.
“I just wanted to figure out what I wanted to do and one day, we were sitting at the grocery store and a very close friend of mine comes in and was like, ‘I’m going to check out a culinary school. Do you want to come check it out with me?’ And all of a sudden a light bulb went on,” he said. “Yes, this is my true calling.”
Wadi came back from visiting a few different culinary schools and told his father his decision – he wanted to become a chef. Though Wadi’s father understood food and enjoyed being in the kitchen, he viewed cooking as a way of life, a hobby, rather than a notable career.
But once he saw how passionate and focused Wadi was with his craft, his support quickly followed.
While working at Solera, under Chef Tim McKee, Wadi’s father passed away. He never got the chance to see the incredible mark his son would have on the Twin Cities culinary scene. But everything, from the dinnertime conversations about the origins of Mediterranean food or the introductions he gave his son to new ingredients, left its mark on the chef he would become.
For more on Wadi’s history and culinary influences, check out the first part of a Q&A with the chef below.
What brought you to Minnesota?
My g—damn cousin. (Laughs) It’s all his fault. My father had helped my cousin open a small grocery store by the name of Holyland in the late 80s, early 90s. My cousin was already here. My father then split with my cousin, who still owns Holyland and has made it what it is today. Because my cousin was here and my father had some business here, my sister came here and my other brother came here. From 1989 to 1997, my family was apart. It wasn’t until 1997 that my family was reunited for the first time in seven years, here in the United States.
What was that like, to finally be reunited?
You talk to immigrants from all over and they all have interesting stories. The fact that you’re finally finding somewhere where you’re able to call home and the whole family comes together for the first time, to me that was a special moment. There is a special connection that I have to Minnesota because of that.
When did you begin cooking?
My mom would cook more traditional dishes, more Middle Eastern influenced dishes. And my father, on the other hand, ended up cooking dishes that were internationally inspired. He would travel the world, loved picking up different spices and different ingredients. I remember when we were living in Kuwait, he brought back soy sauce and to us, it was ’84, ’85 and I remember there’s pictures of me and my father and bottles of soy sauce in front of us. People didn’t know what soy sauce was back then, because it was such a foreign concept. But he would use soy sauce to cook with – and fish sauce – “What is fish sauce?” (Laughs)
But that kind of helped mold who I am as a chef. Very early on, I started cooking with my mom, shadowing her in the kitchen. Baking was the first thing that I started to do, I don’t like to admit that a lot, but for a child it’s a lot easier to do baking because it’s precise measurements unlike cooking where sometimes it’s just a pinch of this and a spoonful of that. And my mom, she wasn’t a very technical cook, there were no recipes. Everything was from memory. So when we were talking about baking, she would say a handful of flour. And I would say, ‘Mom, your handful of flour is different than my handful of flour.’ (Laughs) That was kind of the basics. That was how I grew up and that’s what got me interested in cooking.
What was a typical meal at your home?
It depends on the time of day. For us at breakfast, it was a very small meal, usually cheeses, different raw vegetable crudités of sorts, some zatar, olive oil, bread. That’s breakfast. Maybe some falafel, maybe a little bit of hummus but nothing major, very light meal. Lunch is the biggest meal of the day. We ate lunch between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. and lunch was two or three different dishes that were prepared that were brought out. The center of the plate was rice, always. So there was rice and accompaniments, whether it was roasted chickens, stewed greens, different vegetable dishes and so forth or a roasted shoulder of lamb, whatever it may be, rice was the center of the table. Everything went with the rice, usually when my mom cooked.
When my dad cooked, it was a whole different story. One of his favorite things was basically making like teppanyaki steak, getting a flattop griddle, marinating steak with soy sauce, onion and ginger and putting it on the teppanyaki grill. That was his basic idea of what he wanted to cook. I remember zucchini, as well, marinated in soy sauce with sesame. It was always something different than when my mom cooked. One of the dishes I recollect making with my father was fried fish – a whole fried fish. He would go fishing and he would come back with whatever fish he caught and we would marinate it in spices and dredge it in flour and fry it whole, with the bones and everything. And this was my favorite meal to do because it was like a whole fish and here we are and it was so regal and it was so different. And it was a whole glorious fish. Whenever he would make that, it was a party for me.
You went on to work for Chef Tim McKee at Solera. How did that come about?
From the first day that I entered culinary school, I knew that I wanted to pursue Mediterranean food. That was in my blood. The idea of opening my own restaurant was always in my head. The whole time I was in culinary school I was trying to figure out my style and figure out the language I would speak as a chef. (McKee’s) style of cooking really spoke to me. His menu at Solera was very interesting, a lot of ingredients that I related to, the style of cooking I could really relate to so it was really easy for me to jump in and feel like I could understand and grow from this point here. He’s just an absolutely wonderful guy.
You started Saffron in 2007, with your brother Saed.
It was pretty fast after moving to the United States. It was four years after culinary school that I opened this restaurant, which is pretty crazy.
What led to that decision – why then?
It felt right at the moment. We came into this space and everything just happened to work out at that moment in my life. It felt right. We started looking at restaurant spaces when I was 20 years old. We signed this lease on my 23rd birthday. “Happy Birthday, stupid a—hole, you got yourself a million dollars in debt!” (Laughs)
What was your vision for Saffron? What did you want it to be?
Obviously Saffron is a representation of me as a chef, it’s deeply rooted in Middle Eastern tradition – the flavors, the cooking techniques and so on. But it’s also American. I don’t want to say it’s Americanized Middle Eastern food but it’s Midwestern tones to the cooking that we do. Because that’s who I was – I was Middle Eastern in my background but I grew up in Minneapolis and a very Midwestern town, doing my thing here. So that’s naturally where it went. When we first opened up Saffron, it was a very good representation of me as a chef at that point in my career – a little bit Middle Eastern, a little bit Midwest. Saffron has evolved with me as a person.
The longer I stay in the United States, the more aware I become of traditional Middle Eastern dishes, the more aware I become of the modern, more American approach to things. And right now, I take some certain dishes that were traditional and I don’t mess with them. I serve the tradition the way it was and I respect the tradition. In other cases, I take the tradition as an inspiration and do a dish that is me. It’s interesting. The more that I spend time cooking this food, the more confident I become in my style of cooking, the more confident I become in my guests – that I can put something on the menu and they’ll order it, they’ll like it. They’ll hopefully tell friends that, ‘Hey I had this interesting dish that was a little out of my comfort zone.’
And it was during a tough time.
Opening up a kind of fine dining Middle Eastern restaurant, during a recession, that was a very, very, very difficult thing. Everyone was doing a bistro or a brasserie or a café, and we were coming in with white table cloths with food that, in most cases, people had no idea what we were serving. But it was a great learning experience for me and I felt like, without being too preachy, too much of a teacher, that I could introduce a culture that I was really proud of to the vast majority of Minnesotans. We were presenting Middle Eastern food in a different way other than falafel and gyros and kabobs. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of that – I love eating them – but it’s not what the whole cuisine entails.
For more about Wadi’s restaurants, check out their websites — Saffron | World Street Kitchen. Check back next week for Part 2 of our Chef’s Profile on Wadi’s experience on Iron Chef, plus his choice for a last meal and more.